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The Devil is in the Process: Co-composting Biochar Could Benefit Crop Growth and the Environment

Biochar has the potential to sequester carbon and improve the properties of soils when used as an agricultural amendment. However, biochar will only be a viable option for carbon sequestration if there are uses and viable markets for this biochar. In recent years, there has been interest in adding biochar to agricultural soils in conjunction with compost, and in some cases, “co-composting” biochar—putting the biochar in with the feedstock before the composting altogether. Read on to learn about a study led by Dr. David Gang, a professor at Washington State University’s Institute of Biological Chemistry, indicating that co-composting can provide additional benefits, both during the composting process and to the crops grown in soil amended with the resulting co-composted biochar.

The co-composted biochar used in this study was made using a set proportion of screened dairy manure solids and bedding straw, woody yard waste, and food scraps. Some of the compost piles also contained 2.5% or 5% (by volume) biochar. Even before adding the compost to the soil there were benefits: the addition of biochar to the feedstocks led to significant reductions in the volatile organic compounds measured during the composting process, which can make compost smell bad (Figure 1).

3 men watching equipment on the ground
Figure 1. Mark Fuchs (L), John Cleary (R) (both of the Washington Department of Ecology) and Nathan Stacey (middle, WSU) use equipment to measure gas emissions from a commercial scale co-composting experiment. (Photo credit: Doug Collins, WSU).

While sweet basil is not considered one of the Pacific Northwest’s major commodity crops, it is a high value crop that is frequently grown under organic conditions, making it well suited to receive high-value organic amendments, such as compost and biochar. Gang and collaborators tested the co-compost by blending it as part of a soil mixture and using it to grow two different cultivars of sweet basil (Eleanora and TSQ) in pots in a greenhouse.

Interestingly, neither compost alone, nor compost with biochar added when applied to the soil, made a difference to the growth of the sweet basil plants. Co-composting the biochar (at 2.5% or 5%), however, caused a significant increase in plant fresh weight relative to treatments receiving a combination of biochar and compost (Figure 2).  This result suggests that something occurred during the co-composting process that affected the co-compost’s ability to promote plant growth.

biochar co-compost significantly different from others
Figure 2: Impact of biochar co-composting on biomass/yield of sweet basil cultivar Eleanora (a Genovese type of basil). Different letters indicate significant differences between treatments. (Source: Gang et al. 2018)

Sometimes getting bigger plants can be counter-productive, because the quality can be diluted. Gang and colleagues also measured the effects of the biochar and co-compost treatments on levels of the antioxidants and volatile compounds that create the characteristic flavor of basil. They found very little impact on either antioxidant levels or the production of flavor compounds in sweet basil, per gram fresh weight. This is a very positive result, showing that the higher yields did not result in decreased quality.

The mechanism by which co-composted biochar increased plant growth has yet to be fully understood, but the study authors suggest that these effects may be due to positive impacts on soil health, particularly composition and activity levels of the microbial community. That is, qualities of the co-composted biochar may have helped create a better environment in the soil for microbes that provided benefits to the basil plants.

The only potential downside to using biochar in co-composting is the potential for additional cost associated with the energy for producing biochar. However, biochar cost can be minimized if the energy for its production can be derived from the source materials, and if it and can be produced relatively locally, minimizing transportation costs. Even if there is some cost associated with biochar for co-composting, Gang is optimistic about the potential to offset it by the downstream benefits on crop yield.

While positive effects of soil amendments such as biochar and co-composted biochar are dependent on the specific combination of biochar, soil conditions, and crop cultivar, this study raises some interesting questions and the potential for a win-win situation, with benefits seen both during the composting process and for crops grown using the resulting product. If these play out as hoped and the costs of adding biochar are indeed outweighed by the benefits, compost facilities could be in the market for biochar, leading to greater capturing of carbon in this product, in agricultural soils. Gang’s team, working with a number of other collaborators, are currently following up on these intriguing results to test the impacts of biochar co-compost on gas emissions, co-compost quality, and crop yield and quality of sweet basil, strawberries, and potatoes, both in the greenhouse and in the field (Figure 3).

field plots
Figure 3. Co-composted biochar spread on experimental field plots before tillage and planting of potatoes. (Photo credit: Doug Collins, WSU)

For more information on this project and others funded through the Waste to Fuels Partnership, please see the Waste to Fuels Technology Partnership 2015-2017 Biennium Report.

This work was funded through the Waste to Fuels Technology Partnership between the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University and the Washington Department of Ecology’s Solid Waste Management Program (previously Waste 2 Resources Program). This partnership advances targeted applied research and extension on emerging technologies for managing residual organic matter.

 

Reference:

Gang, D.R., A. Berim, R. Long, J. Cleary, M. Fuchs, R.W. Finch, M. Garcia-Perez, and B.T. Jobson.  2018.Evaluation of Impact of Biochar-Amended Compost on Organic Herb Yield and Quality. Chapter 10 in Chen, S. et. al. 2018. Advancing Organics Management in Washington State: The Waste to Fuels Technology Partnership. Waste 2 Resources, Washington State Department of Ecology Publication No. 18-07-010. Olympia, Washington. https://fortress.wa.gov/ecy/publications/SummaryPages/1807010.html

 

This article is also posted on https://www.agclimate.net/ 

Could Wood Plastic Composites Motivate More Investments in Climate-Friendly Anaerobic Digestion?

 

Picture this future scenario: it’s a hot summer day and you are sitting with some friends on their deck enjoying a cold beverage. You notice they recently replaced their deck and, interested, you ask about the decking material they used, only to find out that it’s made partially out of . . . manure from dairy cows! Surprised? Work done by researchers at Washington State University investigated this potential method for adding value to an agricultural waste product.

Anaerobic digestion (AD) of dairy manure has potential to generate renewable energy, improve the bottom line for dairy farmers, and turn dairies from a net source to a net sink of greenhouse gases (Kruger and Frear 2010; Figure 1). A previous post explored the expense of AD technology and an article from the Ag Climate network blog discussed the benefits of AD. The economics of AD depend on a number of factors, including whether a use—and a market—exists for the large quantities of digested fiber that remain after the process. Typically, this fiber is either reused as bedding either on-farm or elsewhere, or composted for use as a soil amendment. Other methods for adding value to AD fiber include using it as a feedstock for biochar (Ayiania 2019) or as a substitute for peat moss in container plant systems (Palaez-Samaniego et al. 2017). Use of AD fiber as a peat moss substitute has even reached a commercial level. Research from the lab of Dr. Manuel Garcia-Pérez at Washington State University examined yet another potential use for this fibrous product: as an ingredient in wood plastic composites.

cows in barn
Figure 1: Anaerobic digestion has the potential to turn dairies from a source to a sink of greenhouse gases, but capturing value from co-products is critical for economic viability of anaerobic digestion. Photo: Darrell Kilgore, CAHNRS Communications.

The particle size and geometry of fibers from digested dairy manure make it a suitable substitute fiber for engineered wood products, specifically products called wood plastic composites (WPCs), which are widely used for decking and have experienced market growth in recent years. One factor limiting use of WPCs in wet places like Seattle or Portland is their tendency to absorb water, which reduces their strength. Somewhat ironically, steeping the fiber in hot water (called hot water extraction), changes its composition and improves moisture resistance. The question is, will this translate to beneficial changes in the properties of the WPCs?

Gabriela Pereira-Ferraz, a former graduate student in Dr. Garcia-Pérez’s research group, compared samples of WPC made from Eastern white pine wood “flour” (a standard fiber used in WPCs) to those made from AD fiber, in its original form, and AD fiber treated by hot water extraction. The researchers created sample boards from each of the fibers and investigated specific mechanical properties of the WPCs that are important for their functionality, strength, and water resistance.

After the AD fiber was treated with hot water extraction it lost 21% of its mass, and researchers observed changes in its surface structure, which became rougher (Figure 2). The structural changes resulting from hot water extraction led to improvements in mechanical properties and water resistance of the resulting WPC material.  To test water uptake, samples of the WPCs were immersed in water. Treating the AD fiber reduced moisture uptake by 39.1%, and swelling by 36.0%, after 127 days of water immersion. Though decking material would not typically be immersed in water for 127 days, this type of laboratory testing exposes materials to conditions more extreme than what they might experience while in use. The 39.1% reduction in moisture uptake, for example, does not necessarily translate to water uptake by these materials if used on your deck, rather the results of laboratory tests allow researchers to compare the properties of different materials.

Another property measured was “strain at break,” a measure of how much strain is applied to the material in a controlled laboratory setting before the material breaks. Hot water treatment improved the strain at break measurement by 15%. On a practical level, this means that hot water extraction produced a stronger composite material than AD fiber that had not undergone hot water extraction. AD fiber that underwent hot water extraction was more water resistant than pine and performed as well or better than pine fiber for three of four mechanical properties measured.

Scanning electron microscopy images
Figure 2: Scanning electron microscopy images of untreated anaerobic digester (AD) fiber (left) and 160°C hot water extracted (HWE) AD fiber (right) (20,000×). The image on the right shows rougher fiber with coalesced droplets of lignin-rich material, due to hot water extraction. Photo source: Pereira-Ferraz et al., 2017.

These laboratory results are promising. However, in order to move this end-use for AD fiber to commercialization, more work needs to be done to evaluate the economics of scaling up the process. Wood plastic composites may offer another way to add value to fiber from anaerobic digestion of dairy manure, further improving the economics of these systems. Increased use of anaerobic digestion for dairy manure would be a net benefit from a climate change perspective. Developing feedstock for WPCs from AD fiber would therefore be good for both the climate and for the dairy farmer’s bottom line.

For more information on this project and others funded with Biomass Research Funds from the Washington State University Agricultural Research Center, please see the report: Technology Research and Extension Related to Anaerobic Digestion of Dairy Manure 2015-2017 Biennium.

Results of this work have been published as:

Pereira-Ferraz, G., Frear, C., Pelaez-Samaniego, M.R., Englund, K. and García-Pérez, M. 2016. Hot Water Extraction of Anaerobic Digested Dairy Fiber for Manufacturing Wood Plastic Composites. Bioresources 11 (4): 8139-8154.

Pereira-Ferraz, G., Frear, C., Pelaez-Samaniego, M.R., Englund, K., and García-Pérez, M. Production of Composite Materials from Anaerobic Digestion Fiber. 2017. Chapter 7 in: Technology Research and Extension Related to Anaerobic Digestion of Dairy Manure 2015-2017 Biennium. 2017. Compiled and edited by Hills, K., Hall, S.A., Saari, B., Zimmerman T. A Project Report for the Washington State University Agricultural Research Center and the Washington State Department of Agriculture. 173 pp.

 

References:

Ayiania, M., Carbajal-Gamarra, F.M., Garcia Perez, T., Frear, C., Suliman, W., and Garcia Perez, M. 2019. Production and characterization of H2S and PO43- carbonaceous adsorbents from anaerobic digested fibers. Biomass and Bioenergy 120:339-349.

Kruger, C.E., Frear, C. 2010. Lessons Learned About Anaerobic Digestion (Chapter 12). In Kruger, C., G. Yorgey, S. Chen, H. Collins, C. Feise, C. Frear, D. Granatstein, S. Higgins, D. Huggins, C. MacConnell, K. Painter, C. Stöckle. Climate Friendly Farming: Improving the Carbon Footprint of Agriculture in the Pacific Northwest. CSANR Research Report 2010-001. Washington State University: http://csanr.wsu.edu/pages/Climate-Friendly-Farming-Final-Report/.

Palaez-Samaniego, M.R., Humel, R.L., Liao, W., Ma, J., Jensen, J., Kruger, C., and Frear, C. 2017. Approaches for adding value to anaerobically digested dairy fiber. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 72:254–268.

This article is also posted on https://www.agclimate.net/ 

My Tilth Conference up close

This year CSANR sponsored travel for several WSU students to attend the Tilth Conference in Spokane, WA. We are posting reflections written by the students over the next several weeks. Please feel free to comment and give these students your feedback.  To view student posts from this year and prior years, visit http://csanr.wsu.edu/tag/tilth/

Cody Holland
Cody Holland

First, I would like to thank CSANR for generously funding my, and my classmates’, attendance at TILTH Conference 2018. Especially for undergraduates like myself, conferences such as TILTH are a welcome departure from the oftentimes synthetic academic track, onto a more organic (no pun intended) professional one.

The Friday farm tour (or, more aptly, warehouse, ranch, and farm tour) was right up my alley, i.e., right where the magic happens, talking to the proverbial “man behind the curtain.” Last spring term, I took my capstone course (AFS 401) which was replete with field experiences just like these—touring chickpea processing facilities, farm shops, WSCIA meetings. I learned things a mile-a-minute. It was the same at the TILTH Farm Tour, thanks to Beth Robinette (LINC Foods & Lazy R Ranch), Maurice Robinette (Lazy R Ranch) and Patrick Mannhard and Tarawyn Waters (Urban Eden Farm). Being a Spokanite, all three of these establishments were on my radar—I had even volunteered twice at Urban Eden Farm—but setting foot inside LINC’s central-Spokane warehouse and the Robinette’s ranchland was revelatory. The LINC warehouse, and Beth’s narrative, made sense—this was no small thing. In short, LINC Foods is a worker, farmer—and, see fine print—investor owned cooperative food hub that deals regionally in fruit & vegetable produce, animal products, and grain products (including a burgeoning malt op.)… AND, it’s working (pending projected profits in the upcoming fiscal year). Something frustratingly rife in the writ large discourse of sustainable food systems is cart-before-the-horse ideology. LINC (2/7ths of LINC, that is), Beth Robinette and Joel Williamson have defied this trend by (literally) doing their homework (each with MBAs) and taking a sober look at the business viability of LINC before financing the startup. The result? LINC Foods is realizing its mission of building a “regional, sustainable food system by linking local farmers to new markets and ensuring the highest quality products for our customers through democratic enterprise.” Food security, buttressing regional economy, progressive business structure.  Check, check and check.

Lazy R Ranch, in the same vain as LINC Foods, is equal parts sustainable and pragmatic. Not surprising, seeing as Lazy R is a Robinette family affair. Maurice Robinette practices holistic management on his beef cattle ranch, which as it happens, holds ecological and economic sustainability in equal regard. Much like LINC. Though Maurice is a producer, the sustainability of his ranch is not too dissimilar from Beth’s distributer sustainability. Profits are inextricable from the health of the whole system and vice versa.

Thank you, once again, to CSANR for sponsoring this growth experience. I hope to one day have a part in the eastern Washington sustainable food systems movement, as part of LINC Foods or another likeminded organization.

A multifaceted approach to tilth and the environment

This year CSANR sponsored travel for several WSU students to attend the Tilth Conference in Spokane, WA. We are posting reflections written by the students over the next several weeks. Please feel free to comment and give these students your feedback.  To view student posts from this year and prior years, visit http://csanr.wsu.edu/tag/tilth/

Matthew Tumlinson
Matthew Tumlinson

My name is Matthew Tumlinson, and I’m a junior undergraduate transfer student in my first semester at WSU. I’m working on my B.S. in Field Crop Management with a minor in Crop Science and working toward a certification in Organic and Sustainable Agriculture. I grew up mostly in Vancouver, Washington. I also lived in a pear growing region of northern California and a cherry growing region in Oregon for several years. However, during those times I had no knowledge of and little interest in agriculture; now I see those as opportunities missed. It was only during the last five years that I became interested in agriculture and the possibility of hobby farming for myself. My interest in agriculture mainly stems from a concern for the environment and a fascination for how plants work. Once I began to realize how connected agriculture and the environment were, I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of.

The 2018 Tilth Conference in Spokane, Washington was my first Tilth Conference experience. I was curious to see what the social climate surrounding Tilth was like and what was being done to raise awareness about the importance of soil health. I was looking forward to hearing about the overall vision for soil health in our area, as well as what resources are available to new or young farmers interested in getting started in agriculture with their soil’s health in mind. The conference sessions covered a range of topics from farm financing to sustainable farming practices. I walked away feeling inspired and impressed with the tireless work being done within Tilth Alliance to provide resources to farmers, students and the community; as well as with the variety of people in attendance and the different areas of expertise that were represented.

The guest speakers all gave insightful and interesting presentations and there was so much knowledge to absorb. One of the sessions that appealed to me was titled, “Finding Land to Farm, Finding a Farmer for Your Land”. The session had a panel of four speakers, Julie Kintzi of Cart Before Horse Farm; Chandler Briggs of Hayshaker Farm; and Jim Baird of Cloudview Farm. The session was moderated and contributed to by Amy Moreno-Sills of Four Elements Farm and PCC Farmland Trust. Julie and Amy both have off-farm jobs to support their small farms. Off the farm work will be necessary in my case, so I took some perspective and inspiration from that. I attended this session to learn about the hurdles of finding land and starting a farm, as well as balancing work life on and off the farm. They provided some very useful information about loan types and the Farm Link website for acquiring agricultural land. This was a session I was glad I attended.

The other session I thoroughly enjoyed was titled, “Using Native Bees to Increase Farm Yield,” presented by Dave Hunter of Crown Bees. Crown Bees has a great website that promotes native bees and carries supplies to help support these bees. I’ve been interested in beekeeping for a while and this session was big motivator for me. Dave talked about solitary bees and how they are different from bees belonging to colonies, and how efficient each are as pollinators. While all pollinators are generally good, Dave showed that some pollinators are having greater positive impacts than others on crop yields. There was much I didn’t know about bees which he discussed and there is much more that I’d like to learn about now. The session left me anxious to have land of my own and to be able to provide a habitat for pollinators in the future.

I would like to thank the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources (CSANR) for giving me the opportunity to attend the 2018 Tilth Conference. It was a great experience and one that I would highly recommend for any student interested in agricultural sustainability.

Understanding the Unbearable Whiteness of Farming

This year CSANR sponsored travel for several WSU students to attend the Tilth Conference in Spokane, WA. We are posting reflections written by the students over the next several weeks. Please feel free to comment and give these students your feedback.  To view student posts from this year and prior years, visit http://csanr.wsu.edu/tag/tilth/

 

Shannon Brenner
Shannon Brenner

As an aspiring farmer and a student of the social sciences, attending the Tilth conference provided a unique opportunity to engage with topics ranging from applications of sustainable agriculture to issues of gender and race in the organic farming world. Before coming to Washington State University for graduate school to study the sociology of food and agriculture, I was living and farming in Maine, attending the annual Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s Farmer to Farmer Conference on several occasions. I was curious to see how the two organic farming conferences compared, in two states with strong organic and sustainable farming traditions.

I expected similar, high quality and intriguing talks on organic farming applications and techniques. At the Tilth Conference, I attended a talk on integrating pigs into a crop rotation system to improve soil quality, organic matter content, and nutrient composition. The presenter was highly engaging, innovate, and passionate, integrating clinical research and practical day to day operations on her farm in the same way I have seen the organic farmers in New England do.

However, I was pleasantly surprised and excited by the inclusion of talks under the track of Agriculture and Society at the Tilth Conference, a track I have not seen on programs at similar farming conferences. I attended two very meaningful sessions in this track, one on Women in Agriculture and another entitled The Unbearable Whiteness of Farming. Moderated by Audra Mulkern of the Female Farmer Project, the first panel of women farmers created a safe and inspiring space to talk about gender and farming; the labor, both physical and emotional, expected of women; and the importance of representation and mentorship for future female farmers.

It was the second session though, The Unbearable Whiteness of Farming, that was the most impactful. I could tell it was going to be a different kind of session from the moment I walked into the room. The lights were off, there was paper and pens on each table, and before any of the panel spoke, one of the women had us all stand in a circle to stretch and to make a land acknowledgement recognizing the Spokane tribal land upon which we stood. The four women of color on the panel did not have technical research to present, but rather spoke their truths about what it was like to farm as a person of color. And that is what made the session so powerful.

I do not feel it is my place to write those truths here, for they are not my stories to tell; however, I will say that I walked away from that session wishing it were a conference in and of itself. The thorny issues of white supremacy, colonialism, slavery, and reclaiming farming from all of it could not be adequately dealt with in the hour we had together. We need more time too examine that unbearable whiteness of farming to meaningfully address systems of power that maintain inequality and injustice. For example, there is a growing movement to address black land loss due to discriminatory government policy as well as a lack of access to capital and overall poverty (Center for Social Inclusion 2011). Though farmland has been decreasing across the board, black farmers are being disproportionately forced from their land with one out of seven farms being black-owned in 1920 down to just one out of 100 by 1992 (Kromm 2010).

Thus, I encourage all those involved in sustainable farming, in Tilth and beyond, to reflect on any privilege they may have, to think about connection to land and what that means when we think about race, power, and justice. We need all the farmers and farmland we can get, but we need to think about how to heal from past violence and move forward with honor, humility, and courage to do better.

Center for Social Inclusion. 2011. Regaining Ground: Cultivating Community Assets and Preserving Black Land.

Kromm, Chris. 2010. “The Real Story of Racism at the USDA.” The Nation.

Tilth Alliance – Where do we go from here?

This year CSANR sponsored travel for several WSU students to attend the Tilth Conference in Spokane, WA. We are posting reflections written by the students over the next several weeks. Please feel free to comment and give these students your feedback.  To view student posts from this year and prior years, visit http://csanr.wsu.edu/tag/tilth/

Ames Fowler
Ames Fowler

Entering the Tilth Alliance conference, I was eager to put a finger on the pulse of sustainable agriculture in Washington State. I attended a wide variety of workshops pertinent to me as a small-scale farmer and an academic interested in the structural transformation of our agricultural systems. The collage of researchers, extension agents, and producers illuminated a portrait of the sustainable agriculture movement existing around the edges of population centers, meeting high-end demand, and struggling to impact both the general land management and consumption patterns. As a PhD student in Civil Engineering focusing on water resources and as a small farmer, I  caught myself often wondering about the collective benefits of ecosystem services and human health derived from growing and eating food well. These goods were often discussed on an individual level, but rarely systemically. I left the conference re-invigorated to join in re-centering collective benefits and fearful of our prospects of success.

My first encounter with the conception of the agricultural movement occurred in the Friday symposium on genetic diversity and breeding. The symposium was presented by researchers exploring the creation of varieties with a focus on the importance of traits beyond yield.  The end of the day transitioned to a panel discussion on the production and sale of nutrient dense food. The idea that “sustainable and organic methods” produce better food felt like an a priori assumption that more individual consumers were sure to light upon soon. Two chefs on the panel voiced real excitement and willingness to pay for the high-quality produce and protein they were receiving form LINC Foods. The cooperative distribution structure of LINC Foods, allowing small farmers to gain access to larger buyers, provided a welcomed turn in the conversation toward systems solutions – yet the conversation of the chefs still held local sustainable food as a benefit available to individuals able to pay the premium. What must we do to get beyond waiting on the consumer taste or growing only for the wealthy?

The following day I attended a lecture reporting on a preliminary feasibility study of locally grown frozen vegetables as a value-added enterprise expanding the market share of local produce. The speakers driving statistics suggested that the rapid growth in direct to consumer, local food production of the last two decades is slowing dramatically. This trend suggests a saturation of the population willing to pay a premium for local food and interested in interfacing with a farmer. The expansion of local food into value added frozen produce could open the market share of local food substantially, particularly for institutional buyers like schools, hospitals, eldercare facilities and prisons. The economics of scale remains a critical challenge in implementing this small-scale food processing enterprise, but the recognition of local food production as a public good was near universal in the presented data. This lecture excited me about the possibility of creative, cooperative solutions that change the accessibility and market share of local production.

The challenge of “making it” in the current food system was highlighted at dinner – where I had the chance to listen to two mid-career farmers’ recounting of what it takes to prosper and people who have not been successful. Success was associated with products the farmer believed in, proximity to population centers with income capable of the premiums, and a committed customer. Both farmers are quite successful, marked by their decades-long employments at their respective farms. Their conversation moved away from the individual to discuss the challenges they and their communities are facing in attempting to farm at small scales without mining the soils or neglecting the welfare of livestock. The resounding challenges of economies of scale and regulation came up in story after story: a lack of access to certified butchers; concern for the animal welfare of long hauls to slaughter; and dairies priced out the market. The hurdles facing young and small farmers require serious tenacity and perhaps some luck to overcome. These farmers’ passion and seriousness offered me a looking glass to one of my potential futures.

The Tilth conference reminded me that if I hope to see a shift in how we eat and how we manage our arable lands then we need systemic and structural change – we need low barriers  to entry with standards that scale with farm size and risk of harm – we need collaboration to attain economies of scale – we need a valuation of our collective benefits from healthy people and healthy ecosystems – we need equitable access to quality food. Whether it be as farmer or in support of farmers I hope to join the effort of those working for structural change that captures and is moved by collective benefits of a local food economy.

Conversations at Tilth

This year CSANR sponsored travel for several WSU students to attend the Tilth Conference in Spokane, WA. We are posting reflections written by the students over the next several weeks. Please feel free to comment and give these students your feedback.  To view student posts from this year and prior years, visit http://csanr.wsu.edu/tag/tilth/

Jill Farrant
Jill Farrant

When I saw the class itinerary for this year’s Tilth Conference, I knew I had to find a way to attend. As a student and single mother of 3, I wasn’t sure, how I would make this work, but CSANR stepped in with a generous scholarship that covered my lodging, travel and conference admittance. I squeezed my kids extra tight as I bounded out the door, ‘cause let’s be honest, every momma needs a break and some serious adult time was about to happen, with a happy hour, even!

My name is Jill Farrant and I am a student of human development, environmental science and organic agriculture which essentially means I am really, really interested in food security and food justice.

I came to Tilth because I felt like there were conversations that I wanted to have and the people I wanted to have them with were on the billing.  I was not really sure how I was going to do that either, since I am a very shy person by nature and groups tend to intimidate me, but I headed in with an open mind and a determination to at least listen.

Thursday began with rushed anticipation as I loaded on a bus to Tour LINC Foods and member farms. I stood outside LINC Foods in the freezing cold, regretting having made this silly decision to leave the comfort of my 50-degree west coast bubble and drive 6 hours out into the arctic, but I held it together and took solace that I was not the only one jumping up and down to stay warm.

The wait was worth it. Beth Robinette met with us and brought us up to speed on all the cool things that were happening for local farming in the Spokane region and for LINC Foods. We then took a tour out to her family’s Lazy R Ranch and we got to feel what local, sustainable food systems felt like. It was beautiful and just as I had locked my eyes onto the cute little face of a baby cow and was contemplating my place in all this, snowflakes dropped on my nose.

I should probably share that I am the world’s biggest Gilmore Girls fan and if you too are a fan, you will know that I had no option but to see this as the universe’s sign that I was exactly where I needed to be, when I needed to be there.

I spent the next 3 days, easily immersed in conversations with individuals involved in every aspect of sustainable farming from production, to planning, to teaching and advocacy.  I sat and listened in on the Diversity in Farming panel all day Saturday and got to really hear stories that will forever change my perspectives on agriculture.

After the Women in Farming session, I got to briefly speak with Beth Robinette and the other impressive panelists to talk a little about the role they see women taking in this changing face of farming. There was a definite consensus that women were leading the charge toward sustainable agriculture, that their presence in the field was growing and that women’s unique role was that they were really thinking about their children when engaged with food security planning.

I spent Sunday involved in interesting sessions from Bastyr University and attended a weed cultivation for profit session. I closed up my day with a wonderful presentation from Anne Schwartz as she walked us through the wealth of information on the CSANR’s web page dedicated to true cost accounting that will likely be keeping me busy for the bulk of my Christmas break.

Then I packed up and headed back over the mountains.

As I reflected, I realized that while I came to talk, I did so much more, I collaborated. I had the goal to listen, and I did a lot of that as well but not only did I listen, I had the opportunity to feel, and that was more than I could have ever hoped for.

Organic farming changed my opinion about agriculture

This year CSANR sponsored travel for several WSU students to attend the Tilth Conference in Spokane, WA. We are posting reflections written by the students over the next several weeks. Please feel free to comment and give these students your feedback.  To view student posts from this year and prior years, visit http://csanr.wsu.edu/tag/tilth/

Hatem Younes
Hatem Younes

Over the three days of the Spokane Tilth Conference, it was a truly wonderful experience to get a closer look at the organic farming that has begun to spread around the world. Organic crops have also begun to compete with conventionally grown crops. During the conference I had an opportunity to attend many lectures related to my specialty and interests, and I enjoyed listening to the discussion that resulted. Before attending the conference, my information about organic agriculture was very limited based on what we learned in the academic study, but after attending the conference and communicating with many different people including students, farmers, scientists, and marketers specialized in organic agriculture my knowledge about organic and sustainable agriculture increased dramatically.

The first day of the conference was very special where a visit was made to a private company selling organic crops; the company officials explained the mechanism of their work and their interests. The company achieved great profits in its work in the marketing and sale of organic crops. The company official also accompanied us to the organic farm and ranch of her family.

On the second and third days of the conference, I turned my attention to attending presentations on organic and sustainable agriculture. The most important lecture that I attended on Saturday was titled “The Structure and Composition of Soil Organic Matter and Implications for Management” by Dr. Doug Collins, affiliate faculty in the Department of Crops and Soil Sciences, Washington State University. It was a very interesting lecture and judging by the number of attendees, it was important to many at the conference.

On the final day of the conference, I was very exciting to attend the presentation by Justin O’Dea, Soil Specialist, Department of Crops and Soils, Washington State University. It was one of the most important lectures that I was very keen to attend and follow up because it is close to the subject of my PhD study. I am studying the use of mustard to control plant diseases through crop rotation: “Water and soil quality management for root health and management of verticillium wilt in potato”. O’Dea mentioned the importance of mustard to control soil-borne fungi and nematodes.

Finally, I would like to thank all WSU sponsors including CSANR for the chance to attend the conference. Indeed, it was a great opportunity for me to attend the distinguished scientific discussions in the presence of scientists, farmers, students and agricultural companies, which gave great diversity and great benefit to this conference. I would also like to attend more Tilth Conferences in the future if possible. I would also advise all students who are interested in organic and sustainable agriculture to attend next Tilth Conference.

Women in Agriculture

This year CSANR sponsored travel for several WSU students to attend the Tilth Conference in Spokane, WA. We are posting reflections written by the students over the next several weeks. Please feel free to comment and give these students your feedback.  To view student posts from this year and prior years, visit http://csanr.wsu.edu/tag/tilth/

Aysegul Eroglu
Aysegul Eroglu

First of all, I was happy to join the Tilth Conference and learn on a number of different topics.  One workshop of particular interest to me was “Women in Agriculture Panel.” I think that women have a significant part to play in agricultural and rural life. Thus, I was excited to learn about the challenges facing women working in Washington farms.

This panel was conducted by Audra Mulkern who is founder of the Female Farmer Project, which is a multi-platform documentary project. During the panel, she mentioned that they make personal essays, profiles of farmers, photographs, and a podcast. In addition, they have an upcoming documentary film. She added that “We hope this discussion will inspire all of you and all of us to pursue leadership roles, to be engaged at the policy level, and to celebrate women and their role in agriculture.” What I found most interesting was that the three women panelists, all farm leaders in different ways, had found different sources of support and community. Here are some kernels of wisdom I took from the session:

Anne Schwartz: “I hooked into the people who were creating Tilth in 1979 and found my family, and I never looked back… My goal really is to change Agriculture. And actually, we’ve had some fairly profound impacts in the last 40 years. And it’s exciting to see you all here. Women are really a critical part in pushing for change. My personal goal is to really encourage and inspire women to do more than just grow food and find your seat at the table… Tilth has been such an important place, because there have been many women involved in agriculture. I don’t have a lot of access to other women that farm easily. By circumstance, many people who have come to work for me have been women. It is really cool to crank out all the amazing food with a mostly woman team.”

Micha Ide: “I recently just joined the board of directors for a very small farmer’s market. It has been eye-opening… I’ve felt pretty supported in agriculture. I started off on a community plot of land, but within this community space, there were many women. So it was good being a part of a group of people who look like me. I also have my husband. But there have definitely been situations in which I have been excluded from conversations, it may be societal but also, I have to learn to assert myself.”

Beth Robinette: “I run the Lazy R ranch with my dad 16 miles west of town here. I’m 4th generation on that place. I also am the co-founder of LINC Foods which is a worker-farmer owned co-op food hub based in Spokane. With a non-profit called Roots of Resilience, we do a five-day intensive course for women who want to get started in animal agriculture. It’s called New Cowgirl Camp. “I’ve been a part of a group called Women and Ranching, out of California. This group brings women ranchers from all over the US. It’s a great group because it provides so much support… At first I had a lot of anxiety about running the ranch despite having grown up on the ranch. So these women I met through the organization are super inspiring. Ranching is a good old boys’ world for sure. Sometimes, when interacting with other ranchers, they would have full conversations without recognizing I’m there. Some of it was an age thing, especially when I was in my early twenties and everyone was 40 years older than me. But more recently there is a growing breadth of inclusivity and representation.”

In summary, all three panelists said that we have come a huge way. We spent many years trying to find a seat at the table and in policy making, and it is a completely different ballgame now. It’s much more accepted that in this new generation we are changing the picture of who is going to farm. There are so many more women. It’s amazing how far they have come.

With this panel I realized that the women who are in the same business have a specific story. These women all found different sources of support, built their own voice and leadership style, and promote women as farmers.  Listening to them, I wanted to think about the story of all women farmers, who are fulfilling so many different responsibilities in their homes. Women always produce something. Wherever there is success, I believe that there is a female hand whether it is seen or not.

An internal conflict on organic seeds resolved

This year CSANR sponsored travel for several WSU students to attend the Tilth Conference in Spokane, WA. We are posting reflections written by the students over the next several weeks. Please feel free to comment and give these students your feedback.  To view student posts from this year and prior years, visit http://csanr.wsu.edu/tag/tilth/

Sajal Sthapit
Sajal Sthapit. Photo: Laxmi Lama

It was my second time attending the Tilth conference. The diversity of talks and panels at the Tilth conference last year help me broaden my understanding of sustainable agriculture and it was no different this time. I am grateful for the CSANR sponsorship that made my participation possible.

I especially enjoyed the Saturday morning session on organic seed production and the organic seed chain. Aaron Varadi of the Organic Farm School presented on his work as a certified organic seed producer and shared practical tips for other farmers interested in organic seed production. Next, Kikki Hubbard (Organic Seed Alliance), Jacob Slosberg (Osborne Quality Seeds) and Shaina Bronstein (Vitalis Organic Seeds) hosted a panel discussion on organic seed chains.

The National Organic Program in 2002 set the requirement for organic growers to use organically produced seeds where available. Going into this session, I was conflicted about this requirement. On the one hand, I recognized the need to create a market for organic seeds and incentives for organic seed production and organic plant breeding. Currently, organic growers have no options but to grow varieties that were tested and selected in conventional production environments. Researchers, such as Kevin Murphy (Sustainable Seed Systems Lab, Washington State University) have argued that part of the yield gap between organic and conventional agriculture can be met by breeding crop varieties specifically for organic systems.

On the other hand, I was worried that an organic seed requirement would reduce the amount of varietal diversity grown on organic farms as growers will be limited to growing organic seeds only. In the panel too, many farmers admitted that they had their favorite varieties for which it was not yet possible to find organic seeds.

Article 205.204 in the National Organic Program does define exceptions to the organic seed requirement. For instance, non-organic seed can be used if an organic equivalent is not available. In practice, a farmer only needs to document checking three organic sources and not finding the variety before using non-organic seeds. Many proponents of organic farming consider these exceptions to be loopholes that need to be removed. I, on the other hand, felt that these exceptions are necessary to provide farmers with the options of growing a diversity of varieties. This session was able to change my mind.

The State of Organic Seeds, 2016 report found that the proportion of organic seed used in an operation were highest on small farms (<10 acres) and the proportion declined drastically as the farms got bigger than 160 acres. According to Julianne Kellogg, a WSDA certifier, small farms also find it logistically easier to grow more organic seeds. As small farms tend to grow more varieties, with each non-organic variety grown they need to keep records of contacting three sources for organic alternatives. At the other end, bigger operations typically had a contractual requirement of specific varieties or simply had seed requirements that were too large to be met with organic seeds alone.

The evidence shows that the more diverse smaller farms are already switching to more organic seeds and are committed to it. In general, they report being happier with organic seeds than conventional. Hence, my imagined conflict between greater diversity on farm versus the requirement of organic seed use was not really an issue. In fact, a stronger organic seed market would be needed to make it possible for larger organic farming operations to switch to organic seeds.